- Emotional invalidation happens to every child sometimes. To cause harm, it must happen often enough to leave its mark.
- When children's feelings are invalidated, they learn that their feelings, the deepest expressions of themselves, are not worthy.
- Emotional invalidation can be subtle and seem benign, but if it happens enough, the child internalizes that they are unworthy.
What does it take to keep children alive? Most people understand that kids have physical needs like food, clothing, shelter, sleep, and exercise in order to survive and thrive, as well as emotional needs. Children’s emotional needs involve much more than love, and unfortunately, some parents tend to be unaware of the importance of one very important emotional need: emotional validation.
Harry Harlow, a psychologist who studied love and affection, exemplified the significance of emotional needs in The Wire Mother Experiment, way back in 1965. Here, he gave monkeys a choice between two wire “mothers.” One mother was covered by soft cloth but offered no food and the other mother was made of wire but provided the monkeys with nourishment. After understanding emotional validation, it will be of no surprise to know these monkeys chose the mothers that provided comfort but no food. Connection and closeness, something emotional validation promotes, are the essence of our survival.
Emotional validation occurs when parents are attuned to what their child is feeling and are open to learning, acknowledging, and understanding their emotional experience.
Feelings are the inner workings of who you are. When your parents can show their curiosity and acceptance toward how you feel, you are then able to feel seen, understood, and heard. Parents, whether they know it or not, play an integral role in teaching children how to treat their inner emotional landscape.
Can you think of a time when you felt completely seen, understood, and heard as a child? When this happens, you learn that your emotions and who you are is valid. You feel connected and supported by your parents. You feel knowable.
Emotional invalidation, on the other hand, is when you feel unseen, misunderstood, or unheard. When parents lack emotional awareness and did not experience emotional validation themselves as children, it may be extremely difficult for them to see, accept, and validate their own children. A parent can be loving and still be emotionally invalidating, but the impact of being emotionally invalidated as a child can make you feel unloved or even unlovable.
The absence of emotional validation, which leads to feeling less valid than everyone else as an adult, is called childhood emotional neglect.
- Not meeting the child’s emotional need threshold. Most of us can think back to times we were emotionally validated as children, but that does not automatically make you feel seen, understood, and heard. If you did not get emotionally validated enough, you may generally feel invalidated. When parents provide children with emotional validation, they need to be reasonably consistent and non-discriminating. This teaches children that their feelings are valid no matter what. Well-meaning parents may lack the emotional skills to meet their child’s emotional need threshold.
- Actively invalidating the child's emotions. Parents who actively invalidate their child have misconceptions of how emotions work overall. Parents may view feelings as something you choose to experience or label emotions as “bad behavior” that must be fixed. These parents may be aware of their invalidating nature yet may lack the knowledge to know this is inherently wrong. Thus, when children have emotions around these unattuned parents, they may learn that their feelings are wrong or bad, causing emotional neglect and emotional harm.
What Emotional Invalidation May Have Looked Like as a Child
- Your parents pretend to listen to you or lack active listening skills. When you feel unheard, you may form a belief about yourself that what you have to say is unimportant.
- Your challenges or weaknesses go unacknowledged. You may have had a learning disability or have struggled in a certain area of your life that warranted attention and care. Without support, you may end up with an inaccurate idea of your strengths and weaknesses which leaves you feeling confused about yourself or even flawed.
- Your parents seem more like friends than parents. With a lack of consequences and structure, you may struggle with self-discipline and the ability to hold yourself accountable.
- Your feelings are ignored. When parents ignore your feelings, you learn to ignore and suppress your feelings as well. You may build an internal “wall” to protect yourself from your feelings, which you learned were scary, unnecessary, or wrong.
- Your basic needs to be seen, heard, and validated are unmet. Without emotional validation from parents, you may view yourself as unworthy, feel less-than in relation to others, and be quick to invalidate yourself.
- Major events at home or within your family are not talked about. Whether it is a divorce, illness, death, or conflict, these significant experiences are not discussed. You may feel alone and isolated without an opportunity to learn appropriate emotional expression.
- Your emotional expressions are shut down. When you do express yourself emotionally, you may be gaslighted into thinking your emotions are bad or wrong. Gaslighting teaches you to question yourself and how you feel. You may ultimately deal with anger, especially toward yourself.
- You parent your siblings or parents. When your family situation forces you into a parenting role, you learn to be overly responsible and become a caregiver. This makes it too easy to minimize your needs and put others before yourself.
- You learn it is not okay to have needs. Feelings are your guide to tell you what you need. When you lack emotional awareness, you have trouble identifying and fulfilling your needs. You may rarely ask for help from others or may be unaware when you are in need of support.
- You are told you shouldn’t feel your feelings. When you are told by your parents to not feel something, you learn that you should be in control of something that is unavoidable (having feelings). Your attempt to control and suppress your feelings creates disconnection in yourself and undermines your ability to trust yourself.
Do any of the examples above resonate with you?
If you suspect you may not have been emotionally validated enough or your feelings were actively invalidated, you may have experienced childhood emotional neglect. The effects of emotional neglect are substantial and do not go away until you apply proactive, compassionate attention to yourself and your feelings.
The good news is that the effects of childhood emotional neglect need not be permanent. If you begin to value your own feelings more and make a commitment to notice and manage them instead of ignoring them, you can reclaim your invaluable emotions. You will see that once you start validating your inner self, your outer self will respond. It will become possible to fully love and trust yourself the way you should have been doing all along.
© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.
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Harlow H. F., Dodsworth R. O., & Harlow M. K. (1965). Total social isolation in monkeys. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.